As the CEO of a business whose mission is to ensure that 50% of leadership roles worldwide are held by women, I have a large stake in ensuring women in leadership flourish. I also have a clear understanding of what works—and the mistakes organisations are making—in the bid to ensure gender diversity in the workplace.
The biggest mistake I see involves frittering around the edges of policy and strategy, without making any concerted effort to develop and grow your female pipeline of talent.
I am always surprised at how many HR directors are passionate about ensuring flexible-working policies are in place so that women can thrive—yet shy away from running women’s leadership programs because they are seen as too political.
On the surface, flexible-work policies seem like a good idea, but recent research from Mercer shows that they can have a negative impact in the workplace. People who work part-time are much more likely to be rated lower in terms of performance than their full-time counterparts.
The answer, Mercer argues, is to keep the flexible-work policy—but ensure that it is supported by leaders who know how to lead inclusively, as well as focusing on the development of emerging and current female leaders.
Women’s leadership programs
Leadership development is the key to unlocking your female talent. There must be a concerted effort to, first, identify your female talent—and then to give them the tools to succeed in your environment—and ultimately to shape it from the top down.
And as politically expedient as running gender-neutral leadership programs would be, they simply don’t cut the mustard when it comes to impacting your gender diversity measures positively. At Inkling Women, 50% of participants in our women’s leadership programs are promoted within 6 months of the program. These results are simply not seen in leadership programs run with both female and male participants.
Women need the space to understand the unique barriers they face at work, to learn how to overcome them, and to create supportive networks with other women.
At the same time, investment must be made in building inclusive leaders with the willingness and the skills to ensure both women and men flourish in the workplace. Unconscious bias programs are always a good idea—on paper, but they are rarely worth your investment.
At a conference with 138 HR directors, they were asked if they’d run unconscious bias programs in their organisation. About 80% of the room put their hands up. They were then asked if they had seen positive changes as a result of the program. Only one hand went up, tentatively.
High potential women
We need to increase leaders’ motivation, self-awareness and soft skills with comprehensive inclusive leadership programs. At the same time, we must develop all high potential women in the business. This two-pronged approach, in our experience, delivers world-class and sustained results – both in terms of diversity measures and business performance.